American Idol: Fox's Mike Darnell Talks Unlimited Voting, New Theme Nights, Honest Judging

AI12_NY-Auditions-Day1_0417American Idol is back, and while Season 12’s initial numbers may be down compared to last year, Fox’s reality boss Mike Darnell insists he’s not worried. He’s got a buzzy new panel of judges, ideas for fresh theme nights, and a Susan Boyle-esque audition at his disposal over the next few months.

TVLine caught up with Darnell to talk about Idol‘s early returns, the idea of limiting viewer votes, and the challenge of making sure A-list judges can still excel at their jobs once the live telecasts begin.

TVLINE | We have to start with the inevitable ratings question: 17.9 million viewers and a 6.0 demo rating are numbers that 99 percent of shows would kill for. But on the flipside, you were down 19 percent in the demo year-to-year, and then you look two years back to the Season 10 premiere, you had a whopping 26.3 million viewers total. With that in mind, are you happy with the first set of Season 12 ratings?
We really are. I mean this show is in its 12th season, and it still managed to beat the combined numberw of ABC, CBS, and NBC last night by like 11 percent. These shows, there’s a lot more competition now. [The Voice, The X Factor, Idol] are hurting each other, there’s no question about that. It could have been worse, much worse. We feel that the show generated a lot of buzz this season and the numbers held up really well last night. It’s still a powerhouse. I’d say 100 percent of all shows, including Idol, would be happy with that number. It’s a great number.

In addition, I feel like we have a really good shot at cutting the deficit this year. That was just Night One. The judges are being extraordinarily well-received, from everything I’m reading. We have breakout dynamics, things that no one’s ever seen before in a judge panel. Sometimes you can feel it, kind of like that first year with Steven and J. Lo. If you remember that first night with Steven and J. Lo, we were down 18 percent. Then slowly but surely we eroded into that, we cut into that deficit. By the end of the season it was gone. Now, I don’t know if I expect it to be gone [at the end of Season 12], but I expect to cut this deficit because this judge panel is so interesting and so dynamic. In addition, tonight we’ve got the [audition] piece with this guy who stutters and it’s just incredible. It’s like a Susan Boyle moment.

TVLINE | I saw his audition at the movie-theater screening Fox held in New York last week. It’s pretty amazing, I have to agree.
It’s going to go viral, in my opinion. There’s a lot to talk about. Plus, things start getting more interesting with [Nicki and Mariah] tonight and then even more interesting in [the] Charlotte [audition episode], which is next week. It was interesting, in both social media and blogs, there’s a lot of talk about the judges’ panel and it’s mostly positive — in an entertaining way. That’s going to help the show. I said it at TCA and I mean it, I think it’s revitalizing the show.

TVLINE | Idol is a show that, to me, lives or dies every season on the strength of its contestants. Is there ever a fear of putting too much focus on the judges? Or is this just inevitable because it’s the beginning of the season and we don’t know the contestants yet?
That’s it. That’s exactly right. No one knows anybody yet, so it’s got to be about the judges and their dynamic at first. They’re getting all the press right now, but my best guess is by the end of tonight, it’ll be the guy who has the stuttering problem that’ll get a lot of the press. That’s because it eventually does automatically go to the talent. That being said, your judges have to be entertaining. There were good arguments last night, there were disagreements, there were obviously moments of tension, things that we haven’t had in a couple of years. Also, people were impressed that this panel did not just put somebody through because they had a sob story. In fact, several times last night they didn’t. It surprised people when they didn’t put them through. This panel is very discerning and smart in the way they do things. Right now, the dynamic is fascinating. They’re all going to break out. I mean, Mariah Carey is obviously the best singer to to ever hit the planet. Nicki is just an enormous personality, and she’s surprising people with how smart she is, how emotionally connected she is. And Keith is going to evolve in the next few weeks as a real [TV] star.

TVLINE | When you mentioned the thoughtfulness and the discussion and the debate, it made me remember the frustrating part of the last several seasons of Idol was everybody on the panel agreed, everybody said yes or no to the same contestants. It was like a rubber stamp situation. Was the idea of more disagreement in the auditions, the idea of more debate about contestants’ qualifications, something you set out to achieve once you knew you had to reboot the panel? 
We’ve heard the audience. We’ve heard that complaint, and there’s some truth to it. Actually, there’s some truth to it on all of the shows. There’s a lot of yeses and “you’re greats” when they’re really not. I encouraged this panel to be tougher, more discerning. Part of that they came in with naturally. Keith spent a year judging The Voice in Australia. The two girls are tough in their own way. They’re not mean, I think you saw that last night. Even on the funny contestants there was an emotional connection. Like you saw Nicki with the Justin Bieber [wannabe]. It wasn’t mean, but it was honest, straightforward and funny and passionate and a lot of things truthfully that we haven’t had in a while. You’re going to see more of that tonight in Chicago.

TVLINE | I read a quote from Idol’s TCA panel that said “we’re going to separate the contestants by gender in Vegas until we get down to our Top 10.” Are the judges narrowing it down to a Top 10? That would be unprecedented.
No, here’s what’s happening. The way it worked was Hollywood week has been split up into boys and girls, so it’s really two weeks of Hollywood on TV. The boys go through the entire sequence, then the girls go through the same thing. By the end of that, we get down to 20 boys and 20 girls. Then the middle rounds, we still have them split boys and girls, and the judges will bring that down to 20, and the audience will bring it down from 20 to 10.

TVLINE | Okay, that makes me feel better. Idol has always given viewers more control of the voting process than its competitors, and I would hate for that to change.
I agree with that, and I don’t want to lose that core. That’s the thing that you struggle with: You like to give Idol fans new things to talk about and give the show new things to do, and you do, but you still have to keep its core values in place or you lose that audience who really loves the show.

TVLINE | Question about Season 12 voting: There’s the annual complaint that unlimited voting allows cute boys to win every year. Do you guys ever think about limiting the number of votes? Is being able to tout 40 million votes or 50 million votes really that important? Or do you reject the idea that something is broken because, for example, Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips have had success on the charts?
We’ve debated this over the years. There is a debate within the production companies even. Should you limit it, should you not limit it? I don’t have any evidence that limiting voting would change [the outcome], to be frank, although I know there’s this “white boys with guitars” thing that everybody keeps talking about. The truth is, the last two winners have done, like you said, exceptionally. The audience, in the end ,knows what it wants. And it’s important to give them what they want, because they’re the ones that are going to buy the records. I think this show, when you get a winner, [the audience is] engaged enough to go buy the single and go buy the album. And they’re not in the other shows.

TVLINE | Back to the judges for a moment. How do you make sure that Nicki, Mariah and Keith succeed once you get to the live rounds. I mean, we’ve seen Ellen Degeneres and Steven Tyler be entertaining in pre-taped segments, where they get edited, and then fall apart without that editing help. What conversations have you guys had to make sure that the newcomers continue to come across as invested and honest on live TV?
Part of that is who you’re hiring. Some people freeze, that’s true, when they go live. This panel will not. I am not concerned. Their real emotions come out very quickly. I don’t have a better way to say it. I don’t think they can control that part of their sensibilities.

TVLINE | Is there any concern the pendulum could swing too far the other way, that they’ll be too emotional or squabble to the point where it’s uncomfortable?
No, because if you’re passionate and you believe something and it’s real and it’s honest, then it always works. It’s funny. Why are Gordon Ramsay and Simon Cowell so likeable even though they can be tough? Because it’s honest. That’s what I truly believe. When you fake it, well, that’s different, but when it’s honest and coming from an organic space, it always plays. I’m not worried about that. Aren’t you kind of excited to see this panel live?

TVLINE | I won’t lie to you. I am.
You know I can’t control it with editing. What you get is what you’re going to get.

TVLINE | One other long-standing grumble among fans is that it’s been a little bit of a the same-old, same-old when it comes to weekly themes or hearing the same songs season after season. Is that a matter of it being too expensive to clear new material, or too time consuming?
It has nothing to do with cost. Sometimes the artists won’t clear a song; it’s rare, but sometimes they won’t and you can’t get something. Honestly, if you look at The Voice and X Factor even, good songs are good songs, and they just get sung a lot. I don’t know if the newer songs are worse, I just think you have the luxury of looking back at 20 years of songs and finding the great ones. We’re doing a better job, I think, of mixing new and old, but everybody does that because a good song is a good song.

TVLINE | Will you guys shake up the theme nights a little bit, maybe try out some new ones that we haven’t seen before?
Yes. I don’t know what they’ll be yet, but yes. That is one of our goals this season.

TVLINE | We’ve heard several times from several of the judges that the girls are strong this year. Would you like to see a female winner just for variety sake and just so people stop using the “white guy with guitar” label?
I don’t really have a preference. Whoever’s best and whoever the audience likes the best is fine with me. Ultimately, like you said, one of the beauties of the show is it’s really America’s call.

TVLINE | When it comes to ratings and when it comes to the landscape for reality singing competitions, is there any regret in your mind about launching X Factor in the US.? There’s obviously a sense of people maxing out on the number of hours of reality singing competitions they can watch per year…
Here’s the thing, Simon was leaving Idol. I wasn’t going to let him go to another network. And I like X Factor. I still like X Factor a lot. So to answer your question, not really. Plus, The Voice was coming anyway. In the long-run, it’s still nice for us to have something in the fall and something in winter.